Orangutan, VAULT Festival and online

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by Grace Bouchard

When she was three years old, Alice fell into an orangutan enclosure. Now, as a 24-year-old woman, she recounts the story directly to us, though she makes a point to let us know she doesn’t tell people this story often. Years of being called ‘Monkey Girl’ in school has scarred her somewhat, despite the fact that orangutans are not monkeys – they are apes – something Alice reminds us of frequently throughout.

Alice is energetic and erratic, and performer Louise Waller handles her mood swings and narrative detours well. The protagonist is well drawn, if unlikeable – writer Toby King has created an interestingly complex character. The way in which she speaks is distinctive and there’s a clear sense of her character early on, though the script indulges in too many of Alice’s tangents and consequently cuts through the momentum. Where the writing excels in capturing Alice’s voice, it lacks in really committing to the narrative arc and storytelling, leaving the piece feeling a little unexciting. It’s hard to get behind someone telling a story when it doesn’t seem like they want to share what happened.

Despite this, Orangutan succeeds in portraying an individual’s struggle with depression. There is a particularly touching moment close to the end where Alice looks back on her experience in the enclosure, likening it to her adult life where she feels as though she’s stuck somewhere at the mercy of something much bigger than her and feeling totally helpless.

The simple design is effective – a cluttered bed of discarded clothes, blankets and some rubbish are surrounded by the audience. It’s a nest created by Alice to retreat to. She rarely leaves the confines of her bed, though Fiona Kingwill’s direction is dynamic enough, moving Waller around the intimate space at just the right moments in order to break up each section. There are also some brilliantly captured cameos from Alice’s Dad, a zoo keeper, and Alice’s ex-boyfriend (all played by Waller) which brighten the piece. As for the space, the Cavern at the Vaults is all high ceilings and echoing reverb, which the lighting and sound design utilise well in order to create an eerie atmosphere, especially at the beginning of the piece.

The image of a toddler in an enclosure with an orangutan is fantastical and surreal, and it’s a shame that this production doesn’t lean into that more. Orangutan has real potential to take people on an imaginative journey through Alice’s life and mind, but falls just short of being the emotionally vulnerable piece that it could be.

Orangutan ran at VAULT Festival in 2019. Watch it here.

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